For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images.
When God heard this, he was wrath, and greatly abhorred Israel;
So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men;
And delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand.
And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod.
When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.
The battle of Ebenezer was for Israel a terrible defeat. 30,000 footmen were killed, Hophni and Phinehas among them. The ark of the covenant was taken by the enemy. Eli, the high priest, died from the shock of it. And his daughter-in-law was moved with her dying breath to leave her newborn son with the name Ichabod.
For the Philistines, it was a wonderful victory. Not only had they put Israel to route, (that had been done before); but they had captured the ark of Israel’s God, and that was an amazing thing. They remembered still the history of Israel’s departure from Egypt and arrival in the land of Canaan. Generation to generation passed down the memory of the amazing things which Israel’s God had done. People still stood in awe before it, for it was the most amazing series of events that any god had ever brought about in behalf of those who worshipped him. That was why the Philistines had trembled so when they heard that the ark of Israel’s God was being brought into the very forefront of their battle. But they had quit themselves like men, and they had won. Israel was put down in a resounding defeat, and they had captured Israel’s God, It was the ultimate proof that they and their god, Dagon, were mightier than he.
What the Philistines failed to realize, though, was that there was much more behind it than this. It was not their power but the doings of Israel’s God Himself that gave His ark into their hands. As the Psalmist later sang, it was He that “forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand.” But this was not the kind of logic that the Philistines could understand. They could not comprehend a God who was willing to give His own symbol of grace into the hands of an enemy rather than to let His own people become hardened in the way of sin. But this was what had happened. Israel had thought that the ark of the covenant could be handled in the way that the heathen treated their idols, that they could take it and carry it around and use it in the way they wanted like a magic charm to serve their bidding, It was actually a rejection of the law and of their duty to give themselves in service to their God. Because they had rejected Him, God withdrew the sign of His grace from their midst by giving it into the hand of the enemy.
Actually this paralleled, and perhaps even prefigured, another much greater event that was to take place in the following ages. It was that event which happened to Jesus the Son of the living God. He too in His coming was not recognized and received by Israel in humility. The only interest the people had in Him was in satisfying their own desires, and because Israel rejected Him God withdrew Him from them by giving Him into the hand of the enemy, even into the power of Satan.
But this did not mean that God was renouncing the victory. It was not true with Jesus. For all of the rejoicing of the wicked in the day when Jesus came into their hands, it was His victory and not theirs; for in that day Satan was cast out. It was the same as had become so evidently true in the day when the Philistines carried the ark of the covenant into their own land.
It was a proud, arrogant procession that went from Ebenezer to Ashdod. The God of Israel, the God who had laid waste the land of Egypt with repeated plagues, the God who had entered the land of Canaan with irresistible power, that God was now in their hands to do with Him what they pleased. And they knew what they wanted to do with Him too. Directly to Ashdod and to the temple of Dagon their God, they carried the ark. There on the floor before their idol’s feet they set it to rest. Let Dagon look down in contempt upon the God they had captured in his name; let Dagon sneer at Him; let everyone know that Dagon was mightier than even Israel’s God. Far into the night they celebrated, drank, and danced until at last in the early hours of the morning they closed the temple’s doors and withdrew happily to rest.
It was the next morning when the priests of Dagon’s temple swung open these gates again that the first disconcerting note was introduced. The great, towering image of Dagon, the pride of Philistia and of Ashdod, was found lying prone on the ground before the ark of Israel’s God. With sudden, faltering shock the priests of Dagon grasped what this meant. The power of Israel’s God, that power which had laid waste the power of Egypt many ages before, and that power which had failed to express itself in the battle of Ebenezer, had struck once again. He had shown in unmistakable terms that He could do with their god Dagon what He chose. The evidence was there. But no, they could not admit that. The very thought stirred up their whole nature in rebellion. Some other explanation had to be found; Perhaps the base upon which Dagon stood had gradually become weakened under his weight and only in that night, by coincidence, had given way that he should fall. Perhaps there had been a slight tremor of the earth during the night, while they slept off their drunken stupor, which had caused the image to fall. Through the day as they struggled to right the image to its place again, they talked and suggested countless explanations until at last the uncertainties they had felt were quite put at ease.
The next morning the surprise was not so great. In a way they had almost feared it; but the disappointment was there and it hurt; Dagon lay prone once again. And this time it was worse; his head and hands were broken too. The symbolism was plain. Dagon was without thought and without power before the God of Israel. What joy had remained from the victory at Ebenezer was now pretty well washed away. But in its place there came that sullen determination that they would not give in to the power of the God of Israel. Now there was no longer any attempt to explain away what had happened. Silently they worked at restoring the image. There was no joy in their labor; but neither did anyone as much as dare to admit that anything was amiss, even though deep within they all felt it.
But then days and weeks passed by with nothing new taking place, and gradually they found themselves beginning to believe that it had only been a quirk of accident. Once again they begin to speak of it and to show reverence to their god by warning everyone not to tread upon the place where he had lain. Meanwhile in the back of the temple the ark of Jehovah was unmentioned and allowed to gather dust.
Gradually, however, there began to develop a new realization that something was not right. Into Ashdod there came an invasion of mice. This was no mere ordinary thing. The mice came in hordes. They were everywhere and devoured everything. No one could get away from them. No child was safe from their bite and scratch. People actually died because of it. But as yet few even thought to suggest that it had anything to do with that golden box in the temple of their god.
But this was not the end of their troubles. Soon disease and pestilence followed after it. Upon the bodies of the people there developed boils covering their bodies from head to foot. They formed open sores that would not heal. Everyone was sick, and many died.
Now the truth was evident. It could not be denied. There was beginning to develop in Philistia the same thing which the Egyptians had gone through many years before. The Philistines knew it too. The history of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt had astonished the ancient world, and the account of it had been passed on from generation to generation. Suddenly they were struck with, the paralyzing thought that other plagues would follow until they, like ancient Egypt, were utterly laid waste. For the men of Ashdod this was enough. With common consent, they came together and said, “The Ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.” They were determined that the ark of Israel’s God would be removed.
As yet, though, the lords of the other Philistine cities were: not ready to agree. They had not personally tasted that which the men of Ashdod had known; neither would they take the matter so seriously. When the men of Ashdod came to them and asked, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” they were quick to answer, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about unto Gath.” It seemed an easy enough answer. It was hard for them to believe that the God of Israel possessed powers which their gods had never had.
It was not long, however, before they discovered that their problem was not so easily evaded. No sooner had the ark arrived at Gath, and destruction descended upon it just as it had upon Ashdod. Pestilence fell upon the people and open boils appeared upon their bodies. Everyone was sick, and many died. Now there was little hesitation before a cry of protest arose from that city also demanding that the ark be removed. But the rulers were not yet convinced that it was anything more than a coincidence. They merely decided to send the ark on to Ekron, and so they did.
What the rulers of the Philistines were not yet ready to believe, however, the people were. No sooner was the ark brought to the gate of the city of Ekron than the people appeared crying out in protest. They complained, “They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people.” Neither were they ready to be silent when the rulers left the ark with them anyway. They demanded a hearing before the lords of the Philistines, the rulers from all of the principal cities, and to them they said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to his own place, that it slay us not, and our people.” And they had the proof too. For regardless of how fast they had moved, the hand of the Lord God of Israel had moved faster still. The ark had hardly entered the city, but countless were sick, and many were dying. The reaction was frenzied and frantic. A mighty cry of dismay arose everywhere.
It was Jehovah, the God of Israel, justifying Himself. He would not let the children of Israel do with Him or His ark whatever they chose; but neither would he allow the Philistines to do it either. God gave His strength into the captivity of the Philistines so that Israel might learn not to take His blessings for granted. But to the Philistines too, He proved that He would not be handled as a dumb idol. He was more powerful then they all. Before His will the inhabitants of the world would bow, if not willingly, then by reason of force; but He would establish Himself the living God.